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Nathan Heard, 67; Prison, Ghetto Life Gave Dropout the Material for His Novels

March 23, 2004|From Associated Press

Nathan Heard, whose five novels drew from his experiences in prison and on the tough streets of Newark, N.J., has died. He was 67.

Heard died March 16 at a hospital in Newark, according to the Sunday Star-Ledger of Newark. The cause of death was complications from Parkinson's disease, according to his daughter, Natalie.

Heard, whose 1968 debut novel, "Howard Street," sold more than 1 million copies, was acclaimed for his writing's gritty realism and insight into the urban black experience.

"Nathan Heard in that period of the 1960s was a leading force in fiction because he showed how writers could take a real experience and transform it into a useful vision," said poet Amiri Baraka, a friend.

Heard, a native of Newark, began his writing career in New Jersey State Prison in Trenton while serving seven years for armed robbery. He started reading novels passed to him by a cellmate, said H. Bruce Franklin, a Rutgers University professor.

Heard, who had dropped out of high school after 10th grade, believed he could do a better job and started writing about his old Howard Street neighborhood. His mother showed the manuscript to his lawyer, who got the novel published.

"What really made him so important with his first novel was his brilliant insight into the ghetto experience," Franklin said.

Natalie Heard said her father used to list "New Jersey State Prison" under the education section of his resume.

"He wore his prison time as a badge, because while he was in prison that's where he grew up and that's where he became a man," she said.

Besides "Howard Street," Heard wrote "A Cold Fire Burning," "House of Slammers," "To Reach a Dream" and "When Shadows Fall."

Heard also taught creative writing at Rutgers University and Fresno State University, where he won a teaching award in 1970. He appeared in several films, including 1973's "Gordon's War."

In addition to his daughter, Heard is survived by a son, Melvin Hall of Atlanta.

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